“With their tightly laced corsets, long skirts, heavy shoes, and upswept hair, the mothers of 1908 bear little physical resemblance to their counterparts in 2008, dressed in shorts, Spandex, and sneakers. But as today’s busy mothers savor their holiday, some might think longingly of simpler times, before women spoke of “juggling” or “balancing” work and family. They might even be tempted to idealize mothers of a century ago, whose serene images grace family photo albums.
But wait. “It’s not a time to be romanticized,” says Stephanie Coontz, a historian and author of “Marriage: A History.” “Mothers in 1908 spent less time mothering than they do today. Even in the middle classes, they spent much less time with their kids than we would have imagined.”
One reason for this time deficit involves work. “Most families needed several wage earners,” Ms. Coontz says. “Women took in boarders, did sewing at home, cleaning, and all sorts of jobs that weren’t counted as jobs on the Census but were time-consuming.”
“Even mothers without paid employment labored endlessly doing housework. In 1908, a New York settlement worker estimated that the average woman, even in middle-class families, spent 40 hours a week just cleaning and shopping. Laundry was an arduous, two-day task, washing one day and ironing the next. Wood and coal stoves required tending and cleaning.”
“The mothers of 1908, like their counterparts today, received advice from pediatricians. Emmett Holt, author of “The Care and Feeding of Children,” was the Dr. Spock of his era, Coontz says. His advice to women: Don’t pick babies up when they cry, and do not breast-feed. And a noted psychologist, Dr. J.B. Watson, cautioned against using pacifiers or indulging in displays of affection. He wrote, “When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.”
“In the early 1900s, about 10 percent of families were single-parent households, partly because of death and partly because of a high rate of abandonment. “A lot of women were living apart from their husbands,” says Steven Mintz, a historian at Columbia University.”
“Even so, Professor Mintz says, “Life was tough in ways we don’t appreciate.” Life expectancy was 51. Infant mortality was high. Most women could not vote.
In 1907, Laura Clarke Rockwood wrote poignantly in The Craftsman magazine about the need to simplify housekeeping: “This mother of to-day hurries from kitchen to nursery and over the other parts of the house, performing as best she can the many home duties of our times. But she is so overwearied in the doing of it all that the deep well of mother love which should overflow, flooding the world with happiness and cheer, runs well nigh dry at times.”
Every era presented it’s problems. I suspect it is no easier, or harder, to raise children now than it was 100 years ago, the challenges are just different.
If you could pick a decade over the last 100 years which would you pick to raise your children in?